“You’re not interested in what happened to the bees?”
–Elliot Moore, “The Happening”
In terms of a genre consumed to entertain us, the Apocalypse must be fun. Whether at its most bombastic and implausible, or mired in gritty realism and disease, disaster narratives must contain a certain level of grotesque-yet-thrilling spectacle in order for us to be enthralled. But except for a handful of gory “set pieces” that are filmed as dispassionately as time-lapse footage of paint drying, The Happening provides none of those things.
And yet, I believe it is one of the most emblematic films regarding our current predicament.
M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening is currently enjoying a “renaissance” as the Horrible Movie du Jour, with some going so far as comparing it to such luminaries as Tommy Wiseau’s The Room. Ostensibly a horror film, it is claimed that The Happening is not at all scary—and on the whole, completely laughable and worthless.
However, this claim that there is nothing scary about The Happening is what makes me suspect that there might be additional, unsaid, unarticulated reasons for hating this film. Because The Happening is absolutely scary; or, if not jump-scare level scary, at least disturbing and as creepy as fuck, getting under your skin and genuinely making you feel awful and bleak as the closing credits roll.
The movie opens with people suddenly getting disoriented in New York City’s Central Park. The strange behavior includes becoming physically still, repeating words, and even walking backwards. Suddenly, a woman stabs herself in the neck with a giant hairpin. Cut to a bunch of construction workers, who start calmly jumping off the scaffolding of the building they’re working on.
That second sequence, part of the several gory over-the-top suicide scenes in the film, brings—at least to me—an immediate “sense memory” of 9/11, and the jumpers. Shyamalan clearly references this event throughout The Happening—a conceit that is either going to “go over” with a viewer, or not. And that’s pretty much Shyamalan for you—he’s either going to “go over” with you, or not.
Cut to high-school teacher Elliot Moore (Mark Wahlberg) teaching his class about the disappearance of bees and the ideas of Colony Collapse Disorder.
And the point with Colony Collapse Disorder is: when a certain population reaches a “peak” number of members, crazy shit starts happening to thin the herd back down to a manageable amount.
So here we have foreshadowing with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. And Wahlberg’s acting itself here…also has the subtlety of a sledgehammer. There’s a lot of hammy acting in The Happening, and a ton of super-melodrama.
But here is what I think, if you will excuse the expression, “happened.”
The Happening, it seems to me, is based off of those sci-fi themed disaster films of the 50s and early 60s. You know, the ones with the open-mouthed, aghast cast on the poster with some radioactive giant spider hovering over them.
And the #1 film I think about when I think about The Happening is the 1958 movie The Blob—and Wahlberg’s much-maligned performance reminds me a lot of Steve McQueen’s role in that flick.
Which is to say, here we have the generic Heroic Guy completely impotent in the face of some undefined massive horror. And it’s not even a cool horror, like in many disaster films…no zombies, no spectacular tornado, no giant lizard.
No, in The Blob, the Enemy is a giant ball of Space Snot. And in The Happening, it’s…plants.
How is the Heroic Guy supposed to react to that, to the banality of that particular Apocalypse?
Similarly, how are the Heroic Guys of our contemporary society supposed to react to the myriad banal Apocalypses that hover menacingly over our own heads?
And that, to me, is the key to The Happening, and why it’s so disturbing. What kills the “masses” in the movie—what ultimately drives them to an emotionless, dispassionate suicide—are the low-level anxieties and ephemeral-yet-palpable horrors of everyday life in the current reality.
That being said, we should also keep in mind that plants are some smart, capable motherfuckers. Don’t turn your back on a plant…unless it’s a plastic one, of course.